Istvan Rev: Outrageous "Inglorious Basterds" Based on Real History

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[Istvan Rev is a professor of history at Central European University, Budapest.]

Charles T. Pinck, president of the O.S.S. Society, an organization of veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor of the C.I.A., argued in the Washington Times that the film “Inglorious Basterds” loses its pretense as a fantasy when it attaches a fictional group of Jewish commandos to the real O.S.S., thereby giving the viewer the impression that this story is true.

“The fictional ‘Basterds’ may serve the film’s purpose,” Mr. Pinck asserts, “but they do disservice to the history of the O.S.S.”

Mr. Pinck would be surprised to learn that certain episodes of the film are in fact closer to the history of the O.S.S. than they appear, closer perhaps than even the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino, would admit.

Mr. Tarantino reportedly struggled with the ending of the film, until he found a solution that mirrors obscure events in the last days of World War II.

The so-called Jew Hunter, Colonel Hans Landa, splendidly played by Christoph Waltz, is a thinly fictionalized portrayal of Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, who between 1936 and 1943 was chief of staff to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, principal SS liaison officer with Hitler’s headquarters, and plenipotentiary of all SS and Wehrmacht forces in Northern Italy at the end of the war....

Like the SS colonel played by Waltz in the film — who negotiates full immunity, a military pension, U.S. citizenship and property on Nantucket Island in exchange for ending the war (by letting the Basterds kill the entire German high command, including Hitler) — Wolff negotiated the surrender of the SS and Wehrmacht forces in Northern Italy with Allen Dulles. The scene of the negotiations was Switzerland (Dulles was stationed in Berne), not France as in “Inglorious Basterds.” Still, as Neal Ascherson wrote two decades ago on the pages of the London Independent, “By selling his armies to the Americans in 1945, Karl Wolff bought immunity, apart from a brief confinement. ... This old man’s sunny leisure dishonored both the dead and the living.”...

Wolff was tried in 1948, but was almost immediately released from prison. During the Eichmann trial in 1962, evidence once more surfaced about Wolff’s role in deporting 300,000 Polish Jews, the deportation of Italian Jews, and ordering and witnessing with Himmler the murders of partisans in Belarus together with Himmler (a 1970s interview with Wolff is available on YouTube). He was sentenced in 1964 — when Dulles was no longer the head of the C.I.A. — to 15 years imprisonment, but due to ill health he was released in 1969. He then lived the life of a retired citizen in Austria, lecturing about the SS and writing his memoirs. Before his death in 1984, he played a role in the case of authenticating the Hitler diaries, which turned out to be forgeries....

At the end of “Inglorious Basterds,” when, according to the immunity agreement, Lt. Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt) releases Hans Landa, he tattoos a Swastika on the forehead of the SS officer to prevent him from denying his Nazi past. For Karl Wolff, however, it never occurred to disavow who he was. When a prison guard forbade him to wear his SS insignia he went on a hunger strike; he found nothing to be ashamed of in his past.

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